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Scholar Gives His View on Global Competitiveness and School Reform


There's a well-produced and intriguing video circulating around some of the listservs featuring Michigan State University education professor Yong Zhao and his views on the nation's education reform strategy as it relates to global competitiveness. He's generally critical of the accountability movement, which, he argues, places too much value on test scores at the expense of creativity, innovation, and encouragement of students to follow their passions.

What makes Zhao's perspective so compelling is that he is a product of the Chinese education system and speaks rather passionately on the right and wrong paths toward American competitiveness.


Zhao, who was raised in a village in China by illiterate parents, was the first in his family to get an education beyond the 3rd grade, and the first in his village to go to college. He sees himself as fortunate for not receiving a great education by Chinese standards. I assume he's implying that he was not subjected to the stereotypical high-pressure environment that drives students in China to study hard in pursuit of the narrow goal of doing well on placement tests, which determine their educational attainment and the kinds of jobs they can get.

"The American education system now is driven ... to push us toward standardization, centralization, and embodying test scores, which actually I think is moving American education away from the future," he says in the video, produced by the Mobile Learning Institute and sponsored by the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the publishing giant. "The global economy requires niche talents, requires people to become artists, become creators, become musicians, become innovators, become people who are passionate about their work."

Zhao also argues that the test-based approach is leading to a generation of students who are inclined to be "lower-level, left-brain directed" workers, which is quite the opposite of the stated goal of producing a workforce that can solve problems, think critically, and thrive in a high-tech environment.

He also has a recent blog post at ASCD Inservice about the common standards effort, and his concerns about lack of transparency in the process. And his book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, is due out this fall.

Take a look at the video and feel free to weigh in.

UPDATE: One commenter, Liza Dittoe, took me up on my offer to "weigh in." She says:

His views are comforting, but does that make him right?

I saw a debate he did with Bob Compton, creator of the film Two Million Minutes - http://2mminutes.com/ - back in Sept.

Compton says what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.


Good point, I think. I think it's fair, however, to identify Dittoe as a PR person associated with the "Two Million Minutes" project. But there were many unaffiliated fans, as well as critics, of the film when its was released early last year. You can catch up on EdWeek's coverage of the project here.


His views are comforting, but does that make him right?

I saw a debate he did with Bob Compton, creator of the film Two Million Minutes - http://2mminutes.com/ - back in Sept.

Compton says what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.


Thanks for the post. Here is more information about the debate between me and Mr. Compton that Ms. Dittoe referenced.
Announcement about the debate: http://education.indiana.edu/news_detail/tabid/10308/Default.aspx?xmid=234

A summary of the debate: http://www.schoolvine.org/node/72

Podcast of the debate: http://podcast.iu.edu/Portal/PodcastPage.aspx?podid=2a355ab0-40fe-4d4c-8e81-35429c9a36ae

If you are really interested, you can read a moderated discussion about the film published by the Journal of Comparative Education Review, which involved myself, Mr. Compton, and other scholars as well as one of the Indian students featured in the film:

Dr Zhao covers a lot of ground in his video. We agree on some things and disagree on others.

The most important thing on which I hope he is wrong is that China will change its education.

Say what you will about China's school system, somehow they have amassed a $1.5 trillion trade surplus with the US and they are the largest buyer of US Treasury securities, owning nearly $1 Trillion. (more than twice what we owe Japan)

Without China, the Obama trillion dollar economic bailout would be impossible. China is our banker thanks in part to their more than $2 trillion foreign currency reserves and they are our supplier of just about every manufactured item we buy.

As the largest debtor nation on Earth, America has $12 trillion in debt - over 60% of GDP. I'm glad someone is smart enough to generate surpluses to fund our debt.

Oh, and their economic engine also lifted 400 million people out of near starvation. Oh, and they have the world's leading position in innovative battery technology and electric cars - Warren Buffet put $250 million into BYD, the only technology investment he's ever made.

And Chinese patent filings in China, the EU and the US are growing exponentially versus linearly for the US. Some creativity is occurring.

One point Dr. Zhao and I agree on is NCLB is a disaster and should be abolished. It is crazy to test students - who have no consequences for test results - and measure teachers and schools on those results. NCLB, while right perhaps in concept of accountability, is a catastrophe.

In business, one learns everyone needs to be on the same win/loss axis or behaviors are distorted at best or become fraudulent at worst.

While I agree the 21st century belongs to the innovative, creative and visionary - it is hard to be creative say with nano-technologies or alternative energy if one never gets beyond algebra and biology in high school. (55% of US high school grads)

The industries and most of the jobs of this century will all require higher cognitive skills (left-brain) as well as higher creative skills (right-brain). When only 70% of US kids graduate from high school and when only 3% of African American 12th graders are proficient in basic math - I just don't see how they land those creative, high wage jobs.

For example, I now have SEO specialists in marketing in every one of my companies - a job that didn't exist 5 years ago. While creativity is helpful - a deep understanding of statistics and enjoyment of data analytics is a must. Algebra in high school and a business math class in college won't get you the job.

I disagree that we should let children simply "follow their passion" - a solid foundation across a wide array of disciplines is critical to allow one as an adult to be innovative and creative at a world-competitive level.

To be among the creative, innovative class in business in the 21st century, I believe by 12th grade students should have studied Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, World History, English Grammar and Composition, Computer Programming, World Geography, Music, Art, Mandarin or Farsi or Spanish and Global Economics.

Suppose a child's passion isn't Physics, can they skip it? I would argue NO. In 30 years of starting companies, I've had to take on a lot of tasks that I hated - accounting for example - but they had to be done or the company failed. No one has the luxury in life of only doing the fun things - except perhaps professors at colleges of education.

I believe k-12 extra-curricular activities should let children sample Drama, Robotics, Debate, Elocution, Model UN, Moot Court as well as an array of athletics.

This generation will face more competitors, who are better educated and hungrier than ever. I don't think we can over-educate them.

Bob Compton and Professor Yong Zhao will be presenting their different views live at "21st century schooling: the globalised challenge" in Brimingham, England in November 2009. The conference is restricted to members of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and their international network, iNet, but you can read about the conference - Thomas L. Friedmann is also speaking - at http://nationalconference.ssatrust.org.uk/

Schools and other orgs anywhere in the world that are interested in transforming education can join iNet.

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